While it is certainly true and no one can deny that doctrinal unity was stronger in the LCMS and, indeed, across Lutheranism in the bronze age of Lutheranism that came to its glory in the Synodical Conference and the publishing of The Lutheran Hymnal, there is another perspective. In the decade leading up to the publishing of that pivotal hymnal in the life of Missouri, the average communicant received the Holy Sacrament of the Altar something like 2 times a year. Alas, for many pastors it was even less (given that pastors then did not routinely commune with the congregation but communed separately at annual pastors conferences). Doctrinal uniformity was juxtaposed against liturgical chaos (Theodore Graebner's term) and a view of the Sacrament which saw it as an occasional add on to the Service of the Word but not all that necessary or important to one's spiritual life and health. For those who glory in the bronze age of Missouri, this is an inconvenient truth. Luther's own minimum of 4 times annually had become a maximum and the claim of Augustana for the Mass every Lord's day had been forgotten or ignored on purpose.
While some will surely insist that the fruits of the liturgical movement (thinking here more of the Missouri movement and not its larger Roman and ecumenical counterpart) were uneven, the reality is that today we would consider someone who communes so infrequently worthy of a pastoral visit to warn of something amiss in their spiritual life and health. This is part of the fruit of that liturgical movement and of those who read the Confessions and saw them not as a snapshot of one moment in time but descriptive of what it meant to be Lutheran. Their names are sometimes dismissed outright or met with a shrug of the shoulders but their pastoral role in restoring the Lord's Supper to its rightful center in the Church of the Augsburg Confession cannot be denied. We are in debt to their leadership of a righteous cause that was both unpopular and a cause for them to suffer slander and persecution as closeted Romanists. How saw it is that we who held so strongly to a doctrinal corpus had forgotten that this confessional identity had a liturgical face!! But we are in the same boat today.
Today the issue is not the Sacrament, or at least the frequency of people receiving it, but the liturgy of the meal (and of the Word) and the practice of that sacramental identity. To be sure, most congregations in the bronze age were probably using something of the liturgy but they were stopping at the offering and, I am embarrassed to admit, that sometime as many as 2/3 of the assembly would leave at that point if and when the liturgy proceeded to Holy Communion. Today it may be said that most congregations remain hymnal communities but the inconvenient truth is that perhaps the majority of people in church in an LCMS congregation on Sunday morning are present in a parish in which the hymnal is either not used at all or barely used. For them the liturgy is as alien to them as receiving the Sacrament weekly was to the people 70 or 80 years before. Sadly, too often those who advocate for the liturgy are accused of being closeted Romanists or of having a piety of pomp rather than the Word of God. Read some of the comments on this blog to some of the pointed calls for a liturgical identity that mirrors our confessional identity. Clearly we have work to do in a second leg of the liturgical renewal movement among Lutherans.
The bleak reality for us is that the number of congregations that use the liturgy without omitting part of the ordo or shortening it for time purposes is less than those who gather without a stopwatch counting down time on the Divine Service. This is not only true for the Divine Service but also for the Rite of Baptism and other occasional services. The bleak reality for us is that the singing church of Bach and the authors/composers of the great Lutheran chorales is gone to many if not most of us. The liturgy is either spoken or abbreviated, the hymns are chosen from the great body of American favorites (more likely English or a Gospel hymn than a Lutheran chorale), and the musician poorly compensated and inadequately prepared for the pivotal role of leading the Divine Service from the bench. Praise bands and music with a beat has replaced the tune married to the Word to speak the Gospel again to hearts and minds by the voice lifted in praise. The bleak reality for us is that although people are receiving the Lord's Body and Blood more often, the Eucharistic has yet to break through a largely evangelical style piety that views the Word as a how to guide more than the living voice of God who speaks and it is done. Indeed, the Sacraments are testament to that Word that makes water into baptism, bread into Christ's flesh, and wine into His blood! The bleak reality is that more often than not we view what is printed in the hymnal and presented in Service Builder as a series of options to be thrown together the way one might shop at the grocery store for ingredients for an imagined buffet whose menu changes as your eye visits the choices.
And under this all, the people who suffer most are those in the pew. They are deprived of the liturgical mirror to their confessional identity, starved by a Divine Service crafted with a minimalistic view rather than a rich abundance of Word and ceremony, left to their own devices to figure out a piety which likes the Holy Supper but does not see that communion as source and summit of their spiritual lives, and vulnerable to pastors and parachurch entrepreneurs hawking the newest and latest way to be relevant or current. Could it be that people are dropping out of churches not because they don't like liturgy but because they seek authenticity and catholicity from a people who have given all of it up for what appears to work or appeals to polled preferences? Could it be that we are killing the Church and sending disillusioned Christians out the door because we have forgotten that God works through His Word and Sacraments, when and where He pleases, for His purpose? Impatient with such a God we have taken over the wheel and driven His car off the cliff of our self-centeredness, bowing to the idols of relevance, preference, and deference (to culture)? We have learned to pay more attention to what survey says instead of what God says and His people are all the poorer for our unfaithfulness.
Ceremony is not pomp although some pomp is, indeed, ceremony. Ceremony gives visual form to word, idea, and attitude (piety). Liturgy is not the end but the means, the Word prayed and lifted in praise as shaped by historic form and pattern in the Service of the Word and the Service of the Sacrament. Vestments do not draw attention to the man but hide the man so that the office may be front and center. The Sacrament is not simply an add on to the Word but the Word tasted so that the heart may rejoice in the goodness of the Lord whose mercy endures forever. It is not a distraction from our piety but the source and summit of that pious life of praise, prayer, and good works that serve our neighbor. It is this life together that produces an individual piety and not the individual piety that builds our common life of worship and praise receiving His gifts and saying back to Him what He has first said to us. Think about it. Pray about it.